by Meridith Levinson

Good CIOs are Hard to Find. They’re Even Harder to Interview

Apr 30, 20084 mins

Hiring good, solid CIOs has long been a challenge for companies. One of the reasons it’s so difficult is because often the people involved in recruiting the CIO (e.g. the company’s top executives and chief HR wonk) don’t understand what a CIO does. Many still think the CIO is the guy or gal in charge of all the computers. (For more information on what the CIO role is really about, see Nine Things the CIO Wished You Knew About their Jobs.)

Consequently, when they create a job spec for the open CIO position, they include every possible responsibility from basic infrastructure management to application development to hands-on experience managing ERP implementations. Such a broad (and tactical) scope of responsibilities increases the pool of candidates, making it harder for those executives in charge of hiring the CIO to wade through the slush pile of résumés.

When it comes time to interview candidates for the CIO position, these executives are at even more of a disadvantage: Because they don’t understand the role of the CIO, they don’t know what questions to ask that will reveal whether the candidate will be a truly effective CIO or whether s/he’ll just be a pox on the organization. If their questions are particularly insipid, they end up alienating the good candidates, who realize during the interview that the executives don’t know what they’re talking about. Good candidates want to work for executives who understand the value of IT, not companies that want a glorified project manager.

The scenario I’ve portrayed above—along with another scenario I’m about to present to you—explains why companies hire unqualified executives into the CIO and other roles.

The following anecdote comes courtesy of one David G., who, judging by his LinkedIn profile, appears to be some kind of a consultant in Australia. David wrote about a recent experience trying to help a client hire a new VP on LinkedIn Answers. He shared his experience to give readers “a window” into a client’s evidently flawed interviewing process. This is what happened:

David’s client narrowed down a list of potential candidates for this VP position to six. Only one of the six candidates was “very good” in David’s opinion. The other candidates’ qualifications ranged from “substantially unqualified” to “reasonably well qualified.”

The client brought in the “very good” candidate for the interview. David wrote on LinkedIn that it became clear to him during the interview that this candidate was smarter than the executives questioning him. The executives’ “Duma$$” questions began to visibly irritate the candidate, and the executives deliberately continued to pose these questions to annoy the candidate and ultimately to disqualify him from consideration.

Next David’s client brought in the least qualified candidate for an interview: a 31-year-old with “little in the way of relevant experience.” David describes the 31-year-old’s demeanor during the interview as “childlike.”

…he was trying so hard to be agreeable almost pleading to be liked and accepted. When he didn’t know the answer to a Q he would blush and the eyes went wide (like tweety bird) as if begging forgiveness.

David continues that the interviewers found the candidate’s behavior endearing:

The interview committee were warming to this candidate, the[ir] body language became paternal, chests puffed and the kid was offered the gig.

When asked for an opinion, I said you are going to hire the least qualified person you have interviewed. After some exchanged guilty (hands in cookie jar) looks and a bit of mumbling
about cultural fit and growing into the role it was all over.

David closed his entry with a question: What hope is there for business innovation in environments that settle for such mediocrity and where business leaders hire, essentially, to cover their own derričres?

My question is, are companies getting any better at interviewing candidates for CIO positions? What’s your experience? What do you think they need to learn?